Supreme Court decisions: Why democracy lost

Sheldon Adelson – the GOP’s best friend.

It was the end of a long winter, and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson was ready to party. So he invited a handful of rising GOP stars to the Venetian, his sprawling Las Vegas hotel.

Officially, the event was nothing more than a springtime meeting for the Jewish Republican Coalition, with several hundred backers in the audience as the four governors took turns walking to the podium to speak. But for those listening, there could be no doubt who the event was really for.

Governor Scott Walker led the way in wooing the eighth-richest man in the world, remarking to the famously staunch Zionist that though he himself was personally Christian, he always displayed both a Christmas tree and a menorah during the holidays. He also took care to mention his own father’s first pilgrimage to Israel in the 1980s.

“Hey listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me,” Ohio’s governor John Kasich chirped. Throughout his seventeen-minute speech the governor repeatedly addressed his remarks to “Sheldon” as though the two were speaking in private.

Gov. Scott Walker displays both a Christmas tree and a menorah during the holidays. (Wikipedia)

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie caused a murmur throughout the crowd when he used the phrase “occupied territories” to refer to the land that is home to many Palestinians but controlled by Israel. The famously brash governor would later seek out Adelson to apologize in person.

But the private conversations would come later. The four potential GOP presidential candidates in attendance — Chris Christie, Scott Walker, John Kasich and Jeb Bush — would all be granted private conversations with Sheldon Adelson, a private citizen who had never lived in any of their states.

The event was dubbed the “Sheldon Primary” to describe what it so clearly was: a contest between political heavyweights to score points with the biggest donor in modern American politics. And thanks to the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling issued this month, his money will matter more than ever.

“This decision is extremely disappointing but not surprising,” Democratic senator Tammy Baldwin thundered, “coming from an activist Court majority that has previously opened the floodgates of corporate special interest influence into our elections.”

Other party figures quickly joined in her condemnation of the Court’s ruling to further weaken campaign finance laws. “All it does is take away people’s rights,” Majority Leader Harry Reid seethed, “because, you know, the Koch Brothers are trying to buy America.”

President Obama added his own glum assessment. “There aren’t a lot of functioning democracies around the world that work this way … what it means is ordinary Americans are shut out of the process.”

It seems that anyone who was anyone in Washington had something to say about the ruling announced that morning. Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion from a bitterly divided 5-4 Court delivered another body blow to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, eliminating the aggregate donation limits while maintaining the limit of $2600 in direct donations to any one candidate.

Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. (Wikipedia)
Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts. (Wikipedia)

The outcry from the left has been met with triumphant crowing on the right, which generally welcomed the ruling overturning donation limits as a win for free speech. Justice John Roberts took this view, writing that “The government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

This decision comes just four years after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down federal law placing limits on political donations from corporations. Political observers remember how the political world promptly exploded, with President Obama using his State of the Union address to publicly criticize the ruling in the presence seven of the Court’s justices. But it was what happened in the months that followed that truly signaled a new era in US politics.

Citizens United meant the rise of SuperPACs: supposedly non-partisan groups that could raise unlimited amounts of money to promote a cause. What remained of McCain-Feingold left enough token limitations on these groups to have a comical effect. Prohibited from coordinating with the campaigns of any candidate, advisers from a campaign would often depart the race the required number of days before taking the reins of a SuperPAC to wage war on the airwaves.

Karl Rove’s American Crossroads is a famous example, but a few mega-donors used other conduits to transform the political landscape as well. Pundits agree that in February 2012, Newt Gingrich would have been left for dead had he not had backing to the tune of $10 million from Adelson himself. Rick Santorum was also able to stay viable despite his electoral setbacks thanks to support from billionaire Foster Friess. Each of these benefactors had pet causes they wished to champion: Adelson trusted his friendship with Gingrich as well as the latter’s pro-Israel stance, while Friess supported Santorum based on his social views, even going so far as calling the candidate “the most wonderful human being on earth.”

These SuperPACs succeeded in prolonging the GOP nomination and making Mitt Romney’s life miserable in a spring that could have been his coronation. And the Democratic Super-PAC Priorities USA would play a key role in tarring Romney’s image in swing states only a few months later. But Democrats also felt the heat: Karl Rove’s American Crossroads spent $200 million in its bid defeat the President and his Democratic allies in the Senate. It was an anemic success rate for Rove, who just two years earlier his SuperPAC had taken devastating aim at congressional Democrats. Despite the setbacks, the SuperPAC is gearing up to inflict even more electoral carnage for 2014.

Newt Gingrich would have been politically dead if he didn’t get those big bucks. (Wikipedia)

When over a billion dollars is pumped into our elections from outside groups every two years, the effect is destabilizing. In this age of unlimited contributions, the ire of billionaires and special interests can be directed at our representatives like never before. The status of the already powerful is further magnified, making congressional representatives and even presidents more vulnerable to the wrath of the wealthy. And while liberals rejoiced in the aftermath of 2012 (“Ask for your money back,” David Axelrod gloated to conservative donors that week), what democracy had lost that year was clear to more somber observers.

Even in victory, President Obama had attended more fundraisers that year than any president in history. Mitt Romney also spent a record amount for any Republican nominee, and of course the onslaught of attack ads coming from Priorities and American Crossroads was historic. But the hope held by liberals everywhere that these burned mega-donors taking a step back from politics turned out to be wishful thinking.

True, Sheldon Adelson the casino titan had been dealt a losing hand in 2012’s results. But in an interview immediately afterward, he concluded from the results that he actually hadn’t spent enough. His 2016 contribution can be expected to be larger than the $80 million he poured into 2012, something prospective candidates are very well aware of.

It’s why GOP hopefuls Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and others joined Adelson for a weekend retreat at his Vegas estate. It’s why Chris Christie, normally so indifferent to the hurt feelings of even those in his own party, was so quick to apologize to Adelson. And it may be why those in attendance at Adelson’s retreat chuckled sycophantically when he declared that he couldn’t give the RNC the $50 million it had requested “because they don’t have change for $1 billion!”

It’s hard to imagine a more depressing scene than a generation of presidential hopefuls from one party making the pilgrimage to woo a single-issue billionaire at his perch in Las Vegas. But that’s exactly what happened in March. Under the new rules of our system, the pandering makes sense. In such a fluid field, which candidate would write off Adelson’s largesse? Which candidate could expect to survive a $10 million air assault waged against him by Adelson in a GOP primary?

And now thanks to the McCutcheon ruling, Sheldon Adelson and others will be free to donate directly to as many candidates as they wish, without hitting the $123,000 aggregate limit that the case’s plaintiff Sean McCutcheon found so limiting. It remains to be seen to what extent individual members of Congress will pander for a sprinkle of his magic dust.

But when they do, voters in Florida, Wisconsin, New Jersey and elsewhere will be left to wonder why their representatives place so much importance in the whims and pet issues of a Las Vegas billionaire. They won’t have to look much further than the Citizens United and McCutcheon verdicts.

In the meantime, our gridlocked Congress guarantees there will be no legislative remedy to rampant plutocrat spending in our politics. For proponents of campaign finance reform this has to be soul-crushing, especially combined with every subsequent 5-4 Court decision handing more and more sway to America’s most powerful.

In the months leading up to the 2014 elections and beyond, there will be plenty of grim figures detailing corporate and individual spending as the numbers soar from the hundreds of millions to the billions. But there are two numbers that should give hope to backers of campaign finance reform everywhere: 79 and 80.

Those will be the ages of Justices Kennedy and Scalia when the new president takes office in January 2017. If even one of these Justices should retire, the Roberts majority of 5-4 could be flipped on its head. And that means the power to bring campaign finance reform will be in the hands of our next president, whoever she may be.